- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Ryan Westbrooks wants to take his chips and go home. The boisterous 34-year-old gun manufacturer takes the hourlong drive from his home in Springfield, Mass., to the Mohegan Sun casino in the rural southeastern corner of Connecticut every time he has a day off. In between poker hands, the Smith & Wesson employee bemoans the fact that he has to cross state lines to place his bets, and he’s not the only one.

On any given day, the Mohegan parking garage has a sea of vehicles with Massachusetts license plates.

“We’re losing so much money,” he said of his state while playing roulette, his game of choice when he needs a break from Texas hold ‘em. “People who gamble are going to gamble. It’s just a matter of whether you gamble close to home or you gamble an hour away.”

For Mr. Westbrooks, the odds of gambling closer to home are getting much better. Led by Massachusetts, legislators and state officials across New England are lining up behind casinos as the heart of American puritanism eyes a transition into the Las Vegas of the Northeast.

The Massachusetts House two weeks ago overwhelmingly gave the green light to three resort casinos and a slots parlor. The state Senate has begun debating the bill, which also has the backing of Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and is expected to pass it in the next week.

Bay State lawmakers say commercial gambling will generate as much as $300 million each year through taxes on casino revenue, and nearby states also are eyeing blackjack, craps and slots as financial saviors.

Critics are steadfast in their opposition, citing the bankruptcies, divorces, alcohol and drug addictions and other problems that could grow out of increased gambling. Despite the resistance, states are betting that thousands of jobs would be created and a flood of tax revenue would pour into depleted coffers.

In November, voters in Maine, which has one casino and a second under construction, will decide whether to allow two more. New Hampshire is considering two full-blown casinos, and supporters argue that the state must compete with nearby Connecticut, which boasts two massive casinos on tribal land, and Rhode Island, home to two slots parlors.

Not wanting to be left behind, top lawmakers in New York, which allows gambling only at racetracks or on American Indian reservations, have come out in support of a constitutional amendment to legalize commercial table games and slot machines. In New Jersey, the traditional East Coast gambling powerhouse Atlantic City is looking at fresh investments to protect its turf.

Keep them close to home

States are betting that hard-core gamblers like Mr. Westbrooks will stay in his home state if given the opportunity. Most casino regulars, analysts say, have allegiance only to the games, not the people and places.

“Gamblers are very fickle. They’ll go to casinos that are most convenient to where they live. Their primary objective is the gaming, not loyalty,” said William R. Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Most casinos, Mr. Eadington said, attract more than 95 percent of their customers from within approximately a 100-mile radius. The exceptions are residents of states that prohibit gambling. Pennsylvania experienced an exodus until its first casino opened in 2006. The Keystone State now has 10 casinos, including three in or around Philadelphia, siphoning away gamblers who once filled charter buses to Atlantic City.

By keeping its bettors in the state, Massachusetts could deal a serious blow to two of its neighbors. A report from Moody’s Investors Service Inc. concluded that “Connecticut faces the biggest risk,” but Rhode Island also “could sustain a major blow.”

That blow could be worsened if New Hampshire jumps into the mix. The state estimates that Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos are the beneficiaries of about $80 million each year from New Hampshire residents. Another $70 million would be spent at Massachusetts casinos if they are built, according to a gambling study commissioned by New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

“We’re about to watch Massachusetts lawmakers dip into the wallets of Granite Staters and pull out tens of millions of dollars every year to fund their programs and take care of their citizens,” said Rep. Kenneth L. Weyler, a Republican and chairman of the state’s House Finance Committee.

In an opinion column that appeared in several New Hampshire newspapers, he said, “It is mind-blowing that New Hampshire, home of the first state lottery, trails almost all of the country in developing a regulated gambling plan that would raise millions of dollars. The only gamble is to sit back and do nothing while our money funds the Bay State economy.”

Glutting the market?

While gambling proponents produce impressive charts and graphs showing how much money their state could rake in from poker and other games, the risk of casino overload grows larger every time another state jumps into the mix.

Eventually, analysts say, there could be simply too many casinos to support the gambling population. Revenue estimates may fall short, and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment may not produce the packed restaurants and sold-out hotels that supporters envision.

“It becomes very Darwinistic,” Mr. Eadington said. “The market is getting pretty saturated now.”

Others say that as long as developers are willing to spend money, there is no reason to worry about too much gambling in New England or anywhere else in the country.

“The marketplace will tell us,” said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. “If you live in Philadelphia and you enjoy going to casinos, you now have three within driving distance. You’ll ask which one offers the best amenities, which has the best restaurants, which has the best shows. This is democracy in action. This is the free market.”

Betting on Milford

Sensing an opportunity, developers are lining up in Massachusetts even before the legislation is passed. David Nunes, a Colorado businessman who has worked with Donald Trump and other industry tycoons, has artists’ renderings and sketch drawings of the Crossroads Casino, a 300,000-square-foot project with table games, 5,000 slot machines, a dozen restaurants and a few thousand hotel rooms. He hopes to build it outside Milford, a sleepy town of about 28,000 located 40 miles west of Boston.

Armed with the capital to make his casino a reality, Mr. Nunes has pressed the flesh with local officials and business owners for more than a decade.

“I’ve been working at this for 13 years. Everybody knew that it was just a matter of time, once the expansion of gambling happened, it would go from state to state to state,” he said.

If built, Crossroads is projected to create 15,000 to 20,000 jobs, said Barry Feingold, president of the Milford Area Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Feingold readily acknowledges that the proposal “is bad news for Connecticut” but good news for Massachusetts and its struggling economy.

Opinions vary around town, but many local business owners have come out in favor of Mr. Nunes’ proposal.

“I hope they do it. It would bring people out here, spend more money in this area,” said Jamal Jones, the burly owner of Custom Creations barbershop on Main Street.

In business for nine years, Mr. Jones said his shop has been hit hard by the recession. Customers who used to stop in every week, he said, now get a trim every two or three weeks instead. Those who got a haircut every two or three weeks now show up every two months, if he’s lucky.

“You’re starting to feel the pinch,” he said as he took the clippers to a client’s hair, carefully trimming around the ears.

Much like Bay State officials, Mr. Jones sees gambling as a way to pump much-needed capital into the community.

David Dudley, a 29-year-old local businessman who took over his friend’s failing guitar shop in 2008, agrees.

“I’m all for it. I’ve got my chips right here,” he said, holding up a stack he keeps by the cash register of his small store, where guitars line the walls and musicians filter in and out for their weekly lessons.

An avid gambler and guitar teacher, Mr. Dudley, like Mr. Jones, said times have been tough. He has kept the store in business but says it’s often “dead.”

Despite the support of many business owners, others see potential problems, some as simple as clogged traffic along Milford’s winding, two-lane downtown corridor.

“I don’t care how you work this out, there are going to be more cars,” said Ray Ragucci, a 92-year-old retired police officer who has lived in Milford all his life. Talk of jobs, revenue and gambling addiction doesn’t interest Mr. Ragucci, who talked while sitting on the front porch of his small Main Street home.

Watching cars whiz by and clad in a neat white button-up shirt, dress pants and black loafers, he sat back in his lawn chair.

“I’m against it. Whatever money they make, it won’t be worth it,” he said.

Mr. Nunes has heard that argument before. To keep traffic from flooding downtown Milford, he hopes to build a separate exit off of Interstate 495 to be used solely for casino customers. While curious visitors likely would still find their way to Main Street, the never-ending traffic Mr. Ragucci fears would not become a reality, Mr. Nunes said.

‘It destroys communities’

Traffic isn’t the only sticking point. Many oppose gambling for reasons that can’t be cured with an offramp.

“Gambling is a quick fix,” said Paul Sharp, a 60-year-old lifelong Milford resident. Dubbed the “honorary mayor” of the town’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, Mr. Sharp said his state government is making a serious error by looking to gambling to cure its financial ills.

In trying to improve the economic conditions of its citizens, he fears, lawmakers unintentionally will cause financial hardships.

“I just have a gut feeling that when people are chasing dreams, they will spend more money on that illusive butterfly,” he said while enjoying a quiet dinner with his wife at a downtown restaurant. “You cannot become a millionaire overnight. The people who can least afford [to gamble] may very well be frequent customers.”

Some state legislators share that view, though their numbers have shrunk. The state House of Representatives approved the gambling bill by a vote of 132-23.

One of the “no” votes was cast by Rep. Ruth B. Balser, a Democrat who represents the city of Newton and other areas in Middlesex County. Although many lawmakers have changed their minds about gambling after years of debate, Ms. Balser has stood firm in her conviction that the negative consequences far outweigh any financial benefits the state may reap.

“I view the casino industry as a predatory business. It creates problems, it creates addictions,” she said just before speaking on the House floor in passionate opposition to the gambling bill. “Slot machines are a technology that is designed with the sole purpose of addicting. It leads to crime, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration.”

Analysts say Mr. Sharp and Ms. Balser are in the minority. The vast majority of people are “ambivalent” about gambling and can be persuaded to support it, especially when proponents point to hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, said Mr. Eadington, the University of Nevada scholar.

Gambling proponents also vehemently dispute the idea that the industry will degrade social values. Although evidence suggests that financial, alcohol and other problems sometimes can be traced to gambling addiction, Massachusetts residents who can’t keep their hands off the slot-machine levers are already getting their fixes.

“People who enjoy it, where are they going?” asked Mr. Feingold of the Milford Chamber of Commerce. “They’re going to Mohegan Sun, they’re going to Foxwoods. Why not keep them here?”